Art

A Tale of Two Pioneering Women Painters in Renaissance Italy

At a time when women were seen as incapable of serious creative or intellectual activity, Sofonisba Anguissola and Lavinia Fontana gained international renown for their exceptional bodies of work.

Lavinia Fontana, “Self-Portrait at the Spinet” (1577), oil on canvas, Rome, Accademia Nazionale di San Luca (all images courtesy of the Museo del Prado)

MADRID — A young woman in a simple black frock works at her easel, pausing mid-stroke to stare intensely at the viewer. Another young woman, lavishly dressed, plays a keyboard, ignoring her sheet music to gaze at us confidently. The first woman was tutored by Michelangelo, praised by Vasari, copied by Rubens, and worked for 14 years at the most powerful court in Europe. The second woman was the first female artist to lead her own workshop; she broke boundaries of scale, content, and genre, and was the first woman to paint nudes. These self portraits represent two of the most famous and acclaimed artists of the Renaissance. So why don’t we recognize their faces?

The Museo del Prado’s A Tale of Two Women Painters: Sofonisba Anguissola and Lavinia Fontana is a rare revival of these women’s long-overlooked careers, featuring an impressive collection of 65 exquisite and innovative paintings. After centuries of obscurity — when their works were frequently misattributed to Leonardo da Vinci, Titian, Paolo Veronese, and other male artists — A Tale of Two Women Painters shows us just how much we’ve been missing out on.

Sofonisba Anguissola, “Self-Portrait at the Easel Sofonisba Anguissola” (ca. 1556−57), oil on canvas, Poland, the Castle Museum in Łańcut

Born in Cremona to a large family of minor nobility, Anguissola (ca. 1535–1625) began studying painting at age 11. She produced more self portraits than any female painter before her, and she used these intimate works, on wood, copper, canvas, and playing cards, to establish her artistic identity. Whether she portrays herself painting, reading, praying, or playing the virginal, Anguissola’s self portraits present an intelligent, cultivated young woman who is beautiful but modest — most identify her as the “virgo,” or virgin daughter of Amilcare Anguissola. Her father sent these paintings to local aristocrats and prominent artists like Michelangelo and Giulio Clovio to promote his daughter’s talent, and to search for an advantageous marriage. The former paid off in 1559 when Anguissola was invited to become Queen Isabel de Valois’s lady-in-waiting at Felipe II’s court.

Sofonisba Anguissola, “Queen Anne of Austria” (ca. 1573), oil on canvas, Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

In Spain, Anguissola gave painting lessons to the queen and created countless portraits of the royal family, which were sent across Europe as diplomatic gifts. Although they lack the disarmingly expressive, lifelike quality of her earlier self portraits, the paintings from this period inject some intimacy into their regal subjects. She softens the Hapsburgs’ characteristic coldness and smoothes overs their prognathism and other congenital deformities. Although she was highly productive, Anguissola was not an official court painter. That job went to Alonso Sánchez Coello (ca. 1521-1588), who aided and collaborated with Anguissola when she was overloaded with commissions. All of her paintings from this period are unsigned, and she was paid in textiles and jewelry for her efforts.

Born in Bologna nearly 20 years after Anguissola, Fontana (1552–1614) trained in her father’s workshop. Although she was the daughter of a painter of some local importance, Fontana lacked Anguissola’s noble lineage. Instead, she used her self portraits to assert her elegance, competence, and success. Fontana depicted herself clothed in the same intricately embroidered gowns, frilled lace collars, and jewel-encrusted ornaments as her wealthiest female clients in Bologna, Florence, and Rome, but she assumed the poses and accessories of her scholarly male subjects. In a self portrait from 1579 — painted when she was pregnant with her third of 11 children — Fontana sits at her desk, pen in hand. Plaster casts of the god Mars and goddess Venus, both nude, mark her knowledge of antiquity and anatomy — which women were barred from studying at the time — while the large gold cross on her chest affirms her respectability.

Lavinia Fontana, “Mars and Venus” (ca. 1595), oil on canvas, Madrid, Fundación Casa de Alba
Lavinia Fontana, “Costanza Alidosi” (ca. 1595), oil on canvas, Washington D.C., National Museum of Women in the Arts, Gift of Wallace and Wilhelmina Holladay

The question of respectability was one that Fontana played with in her groundbreaking nude mythological paintings, which exude a uniquely believable eroticism and naturalness when compared to paintings of nudes by her male peers. Fontana delighted in painting strings of pearls and gold chains against the warm, flushed skin of her female subjects, often draping jewels between their breasts or around their upper arms to draw attention to these areas. Beyond the glossy, translucent fabrics that barely cover portions of her subjects’ bodies, Fontana’s paintings of nudes are a feast of silk sheets, velvet drapes, plush cushions, fringe, and lace. And perhaps most scandalously, these paintings often portray actual members of the Italian elite, who professed piety in public but enjoyed these works in private, and sometimes even equipped them with a retractable curtain fitted to the painting’s frame.

At a time when women were seen as incapable of serious creative or intellectual activity, Anguissola and Fontana gained international renown for their exceptional bodies of work. And although they’ve long been omitted from Western art history, it’s evident that other artists hanging on the Prado’s walls recognized their talent. In 1624, Anthony Van Dyck travelled to Palermo visit Anguissola, then age 89. The young Van Dyck was so moved by their encounter that he later painted a portrait of Anguissola. In the longest entry of his Italian diary, Van Dyck recalls the helpful advice Anguissola gave him about painting, and writes, “it is apparent that she was a miraculous painter from life, and that her greatest torment was not being able to paint anymore because of her failing eyesight, though her hand was still steady and untrembling.”

Lavinia Fontana, “Judith and Holofernes” (ca. 1595), oil on canvas, Bologna, Fondazione di culto e religione Ritiro San Pellegrino

A Tale of Two Women Painters: Sofonisba Anguissola and Lavinia Fontana continues at the Museo del Prado (Calle Ruiz de Alarcón 23, Madrid, Spain) through February 2, 2020.

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